Book Review: Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell

“Anyone, Eliza is thinking, who describes dying as ‘slipping away’ or ‘peaceful’ has never witnessed it happen. Death is violent, death is a struggle. The body clings to life, as ivy to a wall, and will not easily let go, will not surrender its grip without a fight.” – Maggie O’Farrell. Hamnet

This book has been on my TBR not too long after it was released but I sensed that it was a bit heavily themed so I had to allow it sit until I was in the right frame of mind to read it. This is my first book by the author so I went into the book with no reconceived ideas or expectations.

This story is mostly about the renowned poet, writer and actor, William Shakespeare, and his wife Agnes. It is a simple but yet complex story of how they both grow up in the same town but in totally different ways as William’s family lived right in the city while Agnes’ was raised on a farm at the outskirts of the town. They meet, fall in love, get married and have three children; Suzanna and the twins, Hamnet and Judith. After a brief illness at age 11, Hamnet dies and this devastates both William and Agnes. This story among other themes, brings to life Shakespeare’s love for Agnes who is conspicuously absent in history and the perceived inspiration for one of his most popular works; ‘Hamlet’.

I listened to this audio book and was slowly drawn in by the narrative. Maggie O’Farrell’s somewhat poetic and lyrical style of writing was intoxicating and I was held down by every word until the end of the book. Her vivid descriptions of the characters, their thoughts even before they come to life, gestures, animals, the air, land and water, captured the essence of everything in the story. The characters were strong and relatable, the plot was well thought out and served the purpose of the book well. The first half of the story alternates between two timelines from one chapter to another and this brought more life to the story. For someone who isn’t a lover of flowery writing and anything Shakespeare, it was a great surprise that I  enjoyed it as much as I did.

There is so much I took away from this story but the most important three are; how people treat others when they are different from them. This was evident in William’s father’s behavior towards him because he wasn’t the merchant he had hoped he would be or the town’s people’s behavior towards Agnes and her mother because they were different from other women. Secondly, I could relate to the grief both parents experienced at the death of Hamnet and how it affects relationships and has the ability to change your life. Lastly, the part of the story that described how a flea that jumped from a monkey into a young boy’s hair and the speed at which the disease spread to many countries in a very short time was quite apt considering the COVID-19 pandemic currently looming over us. These and many other subtle themes held the story together and made it into something really beautiful and most importantly unforgettable.

I really enjoyed reading this story although it took some time before I got into it. I recommend it to all lovers of historical fiction and if you don’t like lyrical/ extremely descriptive writing, I would say be patient with it and you will be surprised at how you will eventually feel about it.

“I mean,’ he says, ‘that I don’t think you have any idea what it is like to be married to someone like you.’ ‘Like me?’ ‘Someone who knows everything about you, before you even know it yourself. Someone who can just look at you and divine your deepest secrets, just with a glance. Someone who can tell what you are about to say – and what you might not – before you say it. It is,’ he says, ‘both a joy and a curse.’ She shrugs. ‘None of these things I can help. – Maggie O’Farrell. Hamnet.


Rating: 4.5 Stars

Published: March 31, 2020 by Tinder Press

Pages: 372

Genre: Historical Fiction

Purchase: Amazon Audible

The Author


Maggie O’Farrell (born 1972, Coleraine Northern Ireland) is a British author of contemporary fiction, who features in Waterstones’ 25 Authors for the Future. It is possible to identify several common themes in her novels – the relationship between sisters is one, another is loss and the psychological impact of those losses on the lives of her characters.

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